Prominent Rabbi Speaks about Best Selling Book “Rebbe”
By Arlene Appelrouth
AJT ContributerRabbi Telushklin
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, writer, scholar and pulpit rabbi, lectured to a packed house Monday night at the Marcus Jewish Community Center’s annual Book Festival. Talking about his current best seller “Rebbe,” on the life and philosophy of the iconic Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Telushkin presentation was warm, instructive, interactive, and filled with questions and statements that elicited much laughter from his audience of close to five hundred people.
Menachem Schneerson was the last Chabad Lubavitcher rebbe.. A pioneer in Jewish outreach who had the ambitious goal of wanting to reach out with unconditional love to every Jewish person, the rebbe, according to Telushkin, is “the most influential rabbi in modern history.” “Rebbe,” a 600- page religious biography, has been on every important American best seller list, including those of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Telushkin, a prolific writer of eighteen books, penned an interesting, readable book, entertained the audience with stories about the Rebbe, who was the Chabad leader from 1951 until his death in 1994.
What was unusual about the rebbe, Telushkin said, was his belief that “every act counts and every step matters.” It was the rebbe who sent religious emissaries to airports. These bearded men, dressed in Chasidic garb, would approach men, and ask if they were Jewish.
If the answer was yes, they would be encouraged to put on tefillin, right there, in the airport. This tefillin campaign was controversial.
“Secularly inclined Jews didn’t like it,” Telushkin said, and many orthodox Jews questioned what value this single ritual act would have.
“The rebbe’s attitude,” Telushkin continued, “was that each act has value in itself. Every act has value.”
One thing that characterized the rebbe, was his focus on the positive, including positive language. To explain, Telushkin gave the example of the Hebrew words that refer to hospitals, and how the rebbe insisted on using different Hebrew words.
“What are hospitals in Israel called,” Telushkin asked. “They are called Beit Cholim,” he answered his own question. “It turned out that the rebbe was troubled by “beit cholim because it means, literally ‘house of the sick,’ clearly a discouraging term. The term the rebbe used instead was ‘beit refuah’ a house of healing.”
Telushkin spent five years researching and writing “Rebbe.” Why did he choose to write about the Chabad rabbi?
During a telephone interview with this reporter prior to his Atlanta appearance, Telushkin explained it’s often discouraging to him to read about intermarriage, assimilation, and the declining American Jewish population. Like the Lubavitcher rabbi, who preferred to focus on what’s positive, Telushkin also chooses to pay attention to what’s positive and what’s right about the state of Judaism today.
The Chabad movement meets that criteria.
Telushkin said he has been intrigued by the growth of the Chabad movement. “With Chabad institutions in forty-nine states and more than eighty countries, Chabad continues to grow and gain followers in spite of the fact that its leader died in 1994.”
Since Schneerson’s death, no one has replaced him as leader of the Chabad movement.
Telushkin, an orthodox rabbi ordained by Yeshiva University in New York, calls himself a “traditional Jew.” “I don’t like to deal with denominational labels,” he said.
His introduction to the rebbe and the Chabad movement, occurred when he was growing up in Brooklyn. “My father worked as the rebbe’s accountant for forty years.”
Telushkin told a personal story to illustrate the rebbe’s character.
“In 1986 I was living in Israel when I got a phone call that my father had a bad stroke. I flew back (to New York). Every day, there were two calls about my father from the rebbe’s office.”
“The stroke had ended his father’s career as an accountant, but the rebbe called, wanting to ask my father an accounting question,” Telushkin said.
“My father was able to answer. This showed the rebbe was thinking about my father as an individual. He wanted to remind my father that he could still be useful,” Telushkin said.
“The rebbe always showed great moral imagination.”
Telushkin’s admiration for the rebbe, whom he said “empowers people,” came across in his speech, just as it is obvious to anyone who reads his book.
Steve Chervin, a popular adult educator on Jewish topics, was at Monday night’s lecture.
“Tonight’s program was remarkable,” Dr. Chervin commented, echoing the sentiment expressed by many who attended the program.
“I found tonight heartwarming, uplifting and inspiring,” said Atlanta psychotherapist Elaine Friedman. “Rabbi Telushkin gave a wonderful presentation that just exuded love.”
Rabbi Yossi New, the leader of Chabad of Atlanta, was one of many rabbis in the audience. He also had positive words about the lecture.
“I thought the best part was that everything he said was instructive and empowering.” Dossi New, Rabbi New’s wife, added she “loved the way Telushkin ended his remarks.
Telushkin ended his speech by talking about one of the reasons the Chabad movement is successful.
Chabad is on a mission to reach every Jew, Telushin emphasized. The rebbe taught all his emissaries the way to reach a Jew is to ask him to participate.
“We see each Jewish person as waiting to be asked,” Mrs. New said. “It’s up to us to ask.”